I readily admit to being a child of the ’60s. Bell-bottoms. Janis Joplin. Peace and love. So I’m no stranger to essential oils — patchouli, sandalwood, rose oil. These scents of my youth make me wax nostalgic. But wandering the aisles of certain stores these days, past shelves stocked with many rows of tiny bottles of essential oils, as a veterinarian, they give me pause. I recently wrote about the possible risks of giving oral over-the-counter “herbal” supplements to pets. As I peruse these vials of fragrant oils, I worry that owners who may be appropriately cautious about giving anything orally to their pets may not recognize the danger of things applied to skin, or diffused into the air. Even something seemingly benign, like a few drops of scented oil.
Essential oils are concentrated volatile oils extracted or distilled from plants, which give them their distinctive aromas. But being derived from a plant doesn’t mean something is not a “chemical,” or that it is not potentially harmful. As I recently heard it put by a lecturer from the Pet Poison Hotline: “100 percent chemical-free … except for all the atoms and molecules that make up the matter you interact with every day … so actually quite a lot of chemicals, really.” Composed of small molecules, the chemicals in essential oils may be readily absorbed through the skin, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. Many can even be absorbed into the central nervous system, crossing through what is called the blood-brain barrier, which is supposed to protect the brain from foreign chemicals.
There are thousands of essential oils being produced nowadays, with about 300 that are commonly used for everything from massage oil to cleaning products. Some have been used medicinally since the Middle Ages. How do you know what is safe and what is not? It’s not easy to know for sure. There is little oversight or regulation for quality, content, or safety for such products. There is no standardization. Every brand, every bottle, can be different. Chemical components can vary depending on the plant’s environment, harvesting time, and growth conditions. Oils may be contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, or other substances. And even bottles containing exactly what they say on the label can be dangerous.
One of the first cases I ever saw involving an essential oil was the result of a well-meaning owner who dabbed pennyroyal oil on her kitty’s forehead, thinking it would help kill fleas. Not only was the cat still flea-infested, but she now had a huge open sore on her head, with a central area sloughing skin. Pennyroyal is in the mint family, and has historically been used as an insect repellent, to flavor foods, and medicinally in humans to try to induce menstruation or abortion. The active chemical is pulegone. Clinical signs of pennyroyal toxicity begin with lethargy, vomiting, and weakness, usually within hours of exposure. This may progress to liver damage, clotting disorders, hemorrhage, seizures, even death. (Deaths have been reported both in humans and in dogs from ingestion and from skin application.) There is no antidote. Treatment is just supportive care. Luckily, the cat in question had not absorbed enough to become systemically ill. After washing off any remaining oil using Dawn dish soap (because it really does break down oily substances better than other soaps), we treated the wound and suggested some safer and more effective flea products.
Another common product that is unexpectedly hazardous is “liquid potpourri.” This may come in reed diffusers, fragrance plug-ins, and “simmer pots,” which use a candle to warm the scented oil. Thanks to their curiosity, cats are particularly prone to getting into trouble with these products. Knocking over the bottles. Chewing on the diffusing reeds. Sticking paws into the fluid. Licking drops leaking from the plug-in. Even without ingestion, these products can cause respiratory issues, especially in cats with asthma. The most common exposure, however, involves licking or swallowing the potpourri. It can be as simple as Kitty stepping in the liquid, then grooming her paws. In addition to essential oils, which may themselves be toxic, liquid potpourris often contain cationic detergents added to inhibit mold growth. These detergents are very corrosive, and often not listed on the label. Cats exposed to these liquid potpourris can experience very severe burns to their mouths, skin, and eyes. Clinical signs usually develop within four to six hours, and may include lethargy, hiding, drooling, gagging, and loss of appetite.
Always start with a phone call to your veterinarian, to the Pet Poison Hotline (800-213-6680), or the ASPCA National Poison Control (888-426-4435) before doing anything. Then quickly seek treatment, as with aggressive and prompt intervention, the prognosis is good. Treatment begins with immediately washing off any product on the skin with Dawn, and, if Kitty will cooperate, rinsing her mouth out gently with water. There is a saying in toxicology: “The dose makes the poison.” If you can coax Kitty to drink a few teaspoons of milk or water, this will dilute the product, and may lessen the damage. Once Kitty has been definitively diagnosed and “decontamination” has occurred, your veterinarian can assess the degree of injury, and set up a treatment plan. This will likely include medications to promote healing, analgesics for pain, sometimes antibiotics for secondary infection, followed by whatever level of supportive care is needed to keep Kitty fed and hydrated, since burns in the mouth and/or tongue can make eating and drinking difficult for a while.
These are just a few examples of essential oil toxicity. Potentially dangerous products include everything from cinnamon to eucalyptus to citrus oil. It’s not just pets. Toxicity cases in children after accidental ingestion, inhalation, or dermal exposure to essential oils have been increasing steadily. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still will wear a dab of sandalwood oil when going out on the town, and enjoy lighting a homey, scented Yankee candle on my table. Just be thoughtful, be educated, and be careful, when it comes to essential oils and your pets.